British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced a “Rooseveltian New Deal” to relaunch the country’s economy with a massive government spending program. But his ambitious agenda has already been sidetracked by a worsening crisis in the city of Leicester, where some 500,000 people have been told to stay home to slow a sudden surge of COVID-19 cases.
Mr. Johnson has been eager to get the country beyond the pandemic and the growing public anger over his government’s handling of the outbreak, which has killed more than 43,000 people in Britain and crippled the economy.
On Tuesday, he spared little rhetorical flourish in outlining plans to spend more than £5-billion ($8.4-billion) to build schools, homes, hospitals, roads and rail links. Drawing on U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program of the 1930s, which was designed to pull the United States out of the Great Depression, Mr. Johnson pledged to take a “scythe through red tape” to get projects built and create thousands of jobs.
He also called on Britain to become a “science superpower” and build the world’s first zero-emission long-haul passenger plane, which he dubbed “Jet Zero.” He spoke about planting 30,000 hectares of trees every year to “enchant and re-energize the soul” and committed to changing local planning rules so thousands of “fantastic new homes” could be built annually.
“It sounds like a New Deal,” he said, “and all I can say is that, if so, then that is how it is meant to sound and to be, because that is what the times demand.”
He acknowledged that the spending will be financed through government borrowing. “It’s the right time to borrow,” he said. “We face a real crisis and we have to deal with it. But we’re going to deal with it in the most energetic possible way.”
The government has already been borrowing money at near-record levels to cover the costs of managing the pandemic. More than nine million people who have been laid off because of the crisis are being supported by a government program, and other funding has gone toward helping the self-employed and small businesses. In total, the government is expected to spend an extra £300-billion on various COVID-19 programs this year, equivalent to about a third of its entire annual budget. In the past two months alone, the treasury has borrowed more than £100-billion to cover some of the costs, the highest level of monthly borrowing in almost 30 years.
And the pandemic is far from over. Mr. Johnson had barely finished his speech when officials in Leicester began reimposing a tight lockdown. The East Midlands city has become the epicentre of a new outbreak, with an alarming number of cases. The infection rate is three times that of the next hardest-hit city, with Leicester accounting for 10 per cent of all confirmed cases in Britain last week. The city’s hospitals have been admitting as many as 10 COVID-19 patients a day while hospitals in most other regions have seen admissions fall to about one a day.
The government has been easing lockdown restrictions across the country in recent weeks, and on Saturday, pubs, restaurants, movie theatres and many other venues are set to reopen for the first time in more than three months. Those plans have been put on hold in Leicester and several surrounding communities encompassing as many as 500,000 people. Some stores and schools that had been allowed to reopen will also be closed. The government is also considering banning travel in and out of the area.
Leicester’s Mayor, Sir Peter Soulsby, welcomed the decision to reimpose most of the lockdown measures.
“Because while it is a pain for us and a nuisance for us in the city to be subject to that level of restriction and to have the clock, as it were, turned back in the development of the virus, it is nonetheless something that has some realistic prospect of being effective,” he said during a news conference Tuesday.
He added that officials have still not pinpointed how the surge happened or which parts of the city are most affected, despite an increase in local testing. “We do need still to know more about where it is in the community,” he said. “We hope that now with these new measures we can get on top of whatever is out there very quickly.”
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